Breakside & Chuckanut Play the Long Game with Collaboration

Teams Breakside & Chuckanut thoroughly enjoying a beer break on collaboration brew day. All photos by Neil Ferguson.

Collaboration beers have become ubiquitous in the craft beer scene. While the cross-promotional marketing aspect is easy to grasp, the process that goes into a brewery collaboration may actually be more complex than you think. Obviously, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but sitting in on a recent collaboration between Bellingham, Washington’s award-winning lager brewery, Chuckanut Brewing, and Portland’s equally decorated jack-of-all-trades, Breakside Brewery, provided an especially interesting look at the process, interaction, and philosophy.

With the help of Day One Distribution, Chuckanut has been making a highly anticipated push into the Portland market. For those who may not be familiar with the Bellingham brewery’s passion for precisely balanced lagers, collaborating is a good way to get their name out. The idea of teaming up with Breakside was sparked as far back as January, but the timing for the brew session conveniently coincided with the Bitburger challenge taking place at Portland’s Prost! The “epic three-day brewer’s competition” put Oregon and Washington breweries in a friendly competition to see who could brew the best original German style pilsner. Oddly, the ale-forward Deschutes would claim victory. 

But collaboration was more than just a matter of convenience, as the two breweries share more in common than one might think. 

“We respect each other. The quality, the attention to detail, the science,” said Chuckanut brewmaster and co-owner Will Kemper.  

Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds elaborated, “We do a lot of collaboration beers and the ones that are the most exciting are the ones where it’s with a brewery that A) makes world class beer and B) I feel like there will be some learning process on both sides. So it’s not just a commercial transaction, there’s a kind of edification that takes place.” 

Indeed, once the initial brewing steps began around nine in the morning, the brewers took a table in the Breakside pub and grabbed beers. This is where much of the “edification” would take place. It being so early, Breakside’s lager offerings were the beers du jour. With beer flowing, conversation followed and soon Will Kemper, Chuckanut’s head of operations Michael Toomes and Ben Edmunds were throwing ideas back and forth. What may have surprised a beer fan listening in was just how casual and off-the-cuff the process can be. Despite a lengthy email chain and plans to collaborate that were hatched months before, it wasn’t until both breweries were in the room when it became clear that the process could be as fluid as the beer it would produce. 

So what exactly does one of the top lager breweries in the country make with an equally decorated brewery known primarily for hoppy beers but also for barrel-aged offerings and traditional ales? With Breakside being, in Ben Edmunds’ words, a “big tent brewery,” the two teams hatched a plan to do something that combines the talents of each but is also well outside the box. The beer: A helles bock heavily influenced by German ice wine. Their reason for doing it at Breakside’s Slabtown location was the more conducive experimental nature allowed by the 10-barrel brewhouse, as opposed to the Milwaukie production brewery.

In a beer geek sort of way, Edmunds jokingly described the beer as a “helles bock that we are going to keep very cold and not intentionally remove liquid from and maybe inadvertently remove liquid from.” 

He points out what is perhaps the obvious, which is that they could easily brew a lager or dunkel, but they wanted to do something different. “The inspiration was like, let’s work backwards from German ice wine, like if you did a helles bock that became a helles ice bock, age that in chardonnay barrels, and then a year from now we’re going to age it on Riesling grapes.”

If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. Edmunds wanted to do something that would be a challenge and also outside the wheelhouse for Chuckanut, yet would combine the talents of both breweries. “I thought it would be super cool to do a Breakside/Chuckanut lager – obviously [Chuckanut’s] a lager powerhouse – but to take it one step in a different direction and add a little of a Breakside stamp,” said Edmunds.

Michael Toomes, who handles much of the day to day operations at Chuckanut, added his own take. “Since we’ve made maibock the past 3 or 4 years, we had the experience on that side. They had the experience of doing an ice beer, which we’ve never done. We don’t really mess around with barrels either, so I think the combination of those two things is where this collaboration is really interesting.”

The discussion between the two brewers found them casually tweaking the recipe. Will Kemper, known for his meticulous and scientific approach to his craft, was apprehensive about the risks of brewing such a high ABV beer. The final product should be in the 10-12% range. He also wondered about carbonation, talking about the possibilities with Edmunds before everyone agreed on the spot to prime and carbonate the beer with Riesling grapes. 

 “With this beer where there are all these really creative steps involved, and through just talking about it, we came up with the idea. Ben had an idea, we threw in our two cents, and then the ball starts to roll,” said Chuckanut co-owner Mari Kemper, before adding, “We’re still creating this thing as we go!” 

Much of the hangout session centered around the brewing philosophy of each, and here it became clear that Edmunds and Kemper are kindred spirits. 

“Too many people put emphasis on recipe. It’s a matter of accomplishing what you’re attempting. That’s a fascination, is the different approaches. The idea here is the accomplishment of doing. It’s like the artistry of a painting, the colors are like the recipe, and it’s actually putting them together and how that leads to the finished product. That’s important,” said Will Kemper.   

For both brewers, there is also a dedication to the idea of drinkability, and Edmunds offered his own perspective. “If you think of beer by the pint, it’s about more-ishness, drinkability, refreshment, moderation in terms of alcohol; I think no matter what the beer is it’s about making that beer self-realized as the most pleasant version of that beer that it can be.”

All of this beer talk raised the question: when do we get to drink it? For those clamoring to taste this strange concoction, there is some bad news. The projected release for the beer is around November 2020. Maybe it’ll be there just in time to celebrate a certain someone being voted out of office! 

At times, the actual production resembled a bunch of grown men standing around the open hood of a car. The brewery teams discussed each other’s techniques and equipment while also cracking jokes and genuinely enjoying the hang. Considering the engineering backgrounds of Will Kemper and Michael Toomes, there was also plenty of nerding out over the science and engineering that goes into crafting such an oddball, high-gravity lager. In this case, Edmund and his brewers handled most of the actual brewing while Michael, Will and the other Chuckanut brewers chimed in with thoughts here and there. This being a very sensitive style of lager, there was much discussion about the temperature and the color of the beer while staring into the sightglass. Once the brew day was over, the rest of the process would be in Breakside’s hands as they barreled it and let it age. 

Of course, it was more about fun than work. “In these collaborations, what happens is that we’re all there, we’re all excited and chatting a lot, and then we take a lot of beer breaks, sit down, enjoy the beer, talk about what we’re drinking and what kind of things we’re working on. I find brewers to be very philosophical people,” said Mari Kemper, summing it all up. 

With the initial brew session mostly in the bag, the Chuckanut and Breakside crews  made their way to the upstairs part of the pub for a leisurely lunch and more beers. Once again, this was just a group of friends hanging out. It was a nice reminder that collaboration beers are not always a novelty marketing move, but rather a celebration of philosophy, friendship, creativity, and a passion for crafting the perfect pint. 

Neil Ferguson
Neil Ferguson